Kissel, a former investigative reporter for the Los
Angeles Times, runs the tasting room at Roblar
Winery & Vineyards in Santa Ynez. He is known
for his colorful descriptions of the wine.
BARBARA, Calif. — For someone with only one cup of
coffee in her system and a steep, craggy trail run into
Rattlesnake Canyon looming, it was not the best way to
greet the morning.
an eye out for loose rocks," a pair of passing hikers
called out as I rounded a turn on the switchback path.
"Oh, and rattlesnakes!" they added with a
nonchalant air, as they scrambled past me on their way
back to their car.
they say snakes? Ugh. So much for a relaxing run to clear
was prescient advice. Keeping an eye out for the
unexpected ended up being a theme on our vacation in this
Mediterranean-style city on California’s central coast.
Some like to call Santa Barbara the American Riviera
because of its blue-skied, sandy-beached similarity to
France’s white-washed Cote d’Azur. And indeed, it’s
about as drop-dead gorgeous as a city can be with its
picturesque sea of red-tiled roofs nestled between the
rugged, chaparral-covered Santa Ynez Mountains and the
sandy shores of the Pacific Ocean.
I came to think of Santa Barbara as how Forrest Gump’s
mother viewed a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re
going to get. For example:
expects to step out of their car at a winery and run into
a … peacock? That was our welcome at Pence Ranch, a
200-acre working ranch and estate vineyard in nearby
Buellton that’s making a name for itself with its
exquisite pinot noirs and chardonnays.
region first occupied by the Chumash Indians and later
settled by the Spanish, who knew it’d really be all
about the Danish in the village of Solvang? Along with
four windmills and half-timbered houses, its charm lies in
its signature statues of Hans Christian Anderson and a
replica of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid. It’s also a
great place to find cuckoo clocks and aebleskiver,
traditional Danish apple pancakes.
sure, this "Sideways" country has more wineries
and tasting rooms within easy driving distance than you
could possibly visit in a week, let alone a month or year.
But there’s an emerging craft beer scene, too, along
with more than a few restaurants serving some of the best
produce and seafood on either coast, both in and out of
its hip and funky Funk Zone.
gotten my husband to the West Coast because of a
destination half-marathon that just happened to have the
word "wine" in the title. That, and the fact
that our oldest friends had moved there a year ago and
were happy to host us in their daughter’s bedroom. Fred
is always posting Instagrams of their bucolic deck
overlooking the city, so I’d assumed after the race (on
Day 2) we’d spend the week lazing about, drinking wine
and eventually becoming bored. Santa Barbara, after all,
offered neither the craziness of Los Angeles nor
cosmopolitan glamour of San Francisco. Boy was I wrong.
was one of those vacations where we ended up needing a
vacation when we arrived home nine days later. Once we got
started, we never stopped.
were there during what locals call the "May
Gray" (better, presumably, than the "June
Gloom"). Yet the weather proved so unrelentingly
perfect, with warm, sunny days and cool evenings, that the
last thing we (read: I) wanted to do was sit around. More
than once we went hiking in the Santa Ynez Mountains, and
we also ran and rode a surrey bike (harder than it seems)
along oceanside Cabrillo Boulevard.
with tradition, we also visited several of the city’s
20-plus museums, including its lush botanic garden, museum
of natural history and the new MOXI, The Wolf Museum of
Exploration (plus) Innovation, which offers kids
interactive learning experiences and their parents one of
the best rooftop views of the city. It’d be a perfect
spot for happy hours!
so enjoyed the scenic backroad drive over the Santa Ynez
Mountains on The San Marcos Pass Road (Route 154) to
Solvang for my race, that we did it again one afternoon.
Only this time we were destined for Los Olivos, a small
and picture-perfect town full of tasting rooms, arty
boutiques and farm-to-table restaurants. Home to a jazz
and olive festival every June, it has one of the coolest
general stores (housed in one of California’s first gas
stations) and great bike trails.
course we toured the Old Mission of Santa Barbara, founded
in 1786 by Spanish Franciscan missionaries and home to a
beautiful church, historic cemetery and mausoleum and
museum of historical art and artifacts. Given its location
opposite the awesome Handlebar Coffee Roasters (with its
amazing lattes and pastries), I also got my husband to
amble with me through El Presidio State Historic Park. It
was a military outpost dating to 1782 that played a vital
role in Spain’s occupation of Alta California and is the
city’s oldest building.
had a bit more fun taking an elevator to the top of the
grand, Spanish Colonial Revival courthouse, the showpiece
of which is not its gorgeous hand-painted ceilings and
giant murals but the observation deck in the clock tower
that offers a spectacular panorama of the city, mountains
and harbor. Though in an ironic twist, we ended up getting
a parking ticket for parking in front of a library book
without children, we decided to splurge one night on
dinner at Belmond El Encanto in the windy, steep Riviera
neighborhood. It’s the perfect place to watch a
golden-orange sun melt into the horizon and the food,
served under the stars on a terrace, was perfection. We
also sipped cocktails at sunset on the terrace of the even
more glamorous, five-star Four Seasons resort, where rooms
start at $1,000 and we hoped to spy a movie star or two.
hunt for celebrities also came up empty at The Honor Bar
in the tony seaside community of Montecito, where actor
Rob Lowe is said to hang out. No Oprah or Ellen Degeneres
either, who both own houses there.
eats included the $1.75 tacos at Mony’s and a 10 a.m.
bowl of "famous" pea soup at Andersen’s Pea
Soup in Buellton on our way to Pence Ranch. Guess which
one we enjoyed more.
then there was the wine sampled in tasting rooms that
ranged from sophisticated and elegant, such as Pence Ranch’s
open-air Canyon Room in the Santa Rita hills, where a sun
sail keeps the afternoon sun at bay, to the more lively
Roblar Winery in Santa Ynez. That’s where ex-Los Angeles
investigative reporter-turned tasting room manager Billy
Kissel regales customers with sometimes-racy "grape
tales" meant to entertain as much as educate. The
winery has a full kitchen if you plan on making an evening
of it, and you also can picnic on the grass.
Barbara offered so much — bike and hiking trails for the
body, historic missions and military outposts for the
mind, and well, one beautiful winery after another for the
nerves — that the only thing hard about this trip was
the drive back down to L.A. to catch our flight home.
YOU GO: SANTA BARBARA
to stay: We snagged a spare bedroom in our friends’
hillside house in the Riviera section of town. But for
those who aren’t as fortunate there are countless
options in all price ranges. Less-expensive chain hotels
include Holiday Inn Express, Best Western and Quality Inn.
Upscale beachfront options include the Santa Barbara Inn,
Fess Parker DoubleTree and Hotel Milo. For those with even
deeper pockets, it doesn’t get more luxurious (or
expensive) than the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore,
where Meryl Streep filmed scenes from "It’s
Complicated." With suites and bungalows, the
glamorous hillside Belmond El Encanto offers gorgeous
views of the city. And when it opens in September, the
luxury Hotel Californian adjacent to the city’s Funk
Zone is supposed to be fantastic.
and drink: What are you hungry for? If it’s California
cuisine, you’re in luck because fresh, innovative dishes
that shine with local produce rule this town. In fact, we
only had one disappointing meal in eight days (at a chain
pizza parlor). Restaurants not to be missed include The
Lark in the up-and-coming Funk Zone (the best salad of
salanova lettuces, like ever); Milk & Honey, 30 W.
Anapamu St. (tapas); Yellow Belly, 2611 De La Vina St.
(burgers and craft beer); Mony’s Mexican, 217 Anacapa St
(awesome street tacos); Los Agaves, 2911 De La Vina St
(upscale Mexican); and Helena Avenue Bakery, 131 Anacapa
St., for breakfast sandwiches, salads, seasonal soups,
cheese boards and charcuterie at communal wooden tables.
We also had one super-romantic "splurge" meal at
Belmont El Encante’s terrace restaurant as the sun was
setting. The seared ahi tuna, served on heirloom tomatoes,
alone was worth the price of admission.
to make decisions or reservations? Eat This, Shoot That!
offers both food tours of the Funk Zone ($89) and wine
tours through the Presidio neighborhood ($99) that include
tips on how to take great pictures on your smartphone’s
camera app. Or, take a self-guided tour of the 28 tasting
rooms on the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail. A tasting
usually costs around $15, and you also can purchase a
trail membership ($150) that gets you a one-time free
tasting at each Trail winery, plus 10 percent off the day’s
Santa Barbara caters to both active types and lazybones
who’d rather just relax. Enjoy everything from hiking in
the Santa Ynez Mountains and surfing in the Pacific to
stand-up paddle boarding or kayaking in the harbor. You
also can rent bikes, take a trolley tour, practice yoga in
a salt cave and check out the fresh fish hauled in each
Saturday at the Fisherman’s Market on Stearns Wharf.
Santa Barbara also has 10 walkable blocks of shopping,
oceanfront golf courses and one of the country’s best